Life

The Messiah

What do Christians believe about this important figure?

oil

What does ‘Messiah’ mean?

You may have heard the term ‘messiah’ in popular culture. The 18th century composer Handel wrote a choral work called The Messiah, featuring the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. People often use the term ‘messiah complex’ to describe someone who acts like they alone can save everyone and everything.

In Christianity (and also Judaism, which Christianity stems from) the term ‘Messiah’ relates to a very specific figure. ‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word – Hebrew being the language in which the Old Testament was first written. It has a Greek translation which gets used in the New Testament (which was first written in Greek). That word is ‘Christ’. Both these words mean ‘the Anointed One’.

In Old Testament times a few key people were anointed – usually with expensive, fragrant oil. Kings (i.e. national and military leaders) were anointed. Priests (i.e. religious leaders) were also anointed. This anointing was symbolic. It showed they had been set apart by God, for a special, God-ordained purpose.

 

What does the Messiah mean in the Old Testament?

Clearly several important figures were anointed. But over time, there arose a belief in one specially anointed person – a Messiah.

The Old Testament, which is a sacred text in both Judaism and Christianity, tells the story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, the Jews. God made a covenant with them – promised originally to Abraham and then ‘sealed’ after the Exodus when the law was given to Moses. They were chosen by Him to be a ‘light to the nations’, obeying His laws and providing a model of how people should live. In return, God would make them great as a nation.

The later parts of the Old Testament, or Torah, relate to a very specific period in Jewish history: the exile and return to Israel. The people of Israel had been conquered by enemy nations and forced to live in a foreign land. The Jewish prophets (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah) called it God’s judgment on Israel for living in a way that was against God’s laws and rejecting the covenant they had made. They had turned their back on their calling to be a light to other nations and God was punishing them.

But in between the words of judgment was the promise of hope. Although the situation looked bleak now, God would not leave them there forever. A special person – who had the strength and courage of a king and the holiness of a priest – would bring them back. This person would bring freedom from the enemies who imprisoned them. They would give them back their home. They would ensure peace and prosperity again, as it was during the golden age of King David. Through this Anointed One, God would live with them again.

 

How does this idea relate to Jesus?

It is worth noting that, at the time of Jesus, Israel was still not free. It was under occupation as part of the Roman Empire. So when Jesus, who was himself a Jew, walked the earth, the people of Israel were still very much hoping for the Messiah to come to save their nation from the hands of their enemies. There had been several groups of people who had raised expectations of fulfilling this role – for example, the Maccabees. But these uprisings and would-be Messiahs had been put down.

There is an important moment in the gospels (the eye-witness accounts of Jesus found in the New Testament) where Peter, a key disciple, has a moment of revelation about Jesus. Like most Jewish rabbis in that culture, Jesus had disciples who stayed with him and learned from him. They would absorb his teaching and do whatever the rabbi asked.

The gospels make it clear that Jesus was quite a controversial figure. Some people loved what he said and did. Others found it offensive and blasphemous. On one occasion, Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was:

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah [i.e. Peter], for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 16:14-17)

Peter here connects the Rabbi Jesus with the Jewish figure of the Messiah. And Jesus said and did things which got many others hoping that maybe, just maybe, he could be the one to restore political freedom to Israel. This might explain why so many people welcomed Jesus into the capital city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, hailing him in the way they would do a coming king. It perhaps also explains why, by the time he was arrested the following week, those same crowds had dropped away. It was clear that Jesus wasn’t going to seize control and instate himself as Israel’s true king after all.

But his disciples, who went on to become known as the first ‘Christians’, continued to believe he was more than just a rabbi and miracle maker. They lived and died believing Jesus was the God-anointed king and saviour. It was this belief which separated the early Christians – many of whom were Jewish converts – from mainstream Jews.

There is an interesting tension here. The Old Testament prophets seem to draw up one picture of the Messiah for a particular time and purpose. But the portrait of Jesus found in the New Testament gospels – and indeed history – doesn’t easily match this.

So why do Christians still believe in Jesus as the Messiah?

 

Jesus the Messiah – a Christian interpretation

Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah whom the Jews had been waiting for. In the original Greek translation of the New Testament, the word Messiah is written as ‘Christ’. So when Christians talk about Jesus Christ, they are not giving Jesus a surname. It is a title – a statement that he is indeed the Anointed One promised by the prophets, come to lead his people and bring them back to God.

Before we look at some of the ways Christians interpret the Jewish portrait of the Messiah it’s worth noting a very key difference in their thinking: who the Messiah came for. According to the covenant made with Abraham, the purpose of establishing Israel as a nation chosen by God was to glorify God in the world and model how life could and should be. The Messiah would effectively ‘reboot’ the call – and the promise that came with it.

But Christians believe that Jesus ‘Christ’ made a ‘new covenant’ which was now for everybody. So many of the big themes found in the Jewish concept of the Messiah are, in Christianity, translated into a much bigger picture: a king, a priest, and a peacemaker not just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world.

  1. A king

The Messiah is a kingly figure, closely connected to King David. The nativity story makes it clear that Joseph and Mary were both descended from King David, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King David’s hometown (think of the carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’).

In the New Testament stories of Jesus’ ministry he often talks about ‘God’s kingdom’. In the Old Testament this kingdom is a physical place on earth for the people of Israel. But the early Christians understood this kingdom as going beyond one place or people. This is part of the importance of Pentecost, where the unschooled disciples were given a supernatural ability to speak in different languages. Suddenly, people from across the known world could hear this message about God’s love and forgiveness in their own tongue.

Christians share this belief today. God’s kingdom, which Jesus ‘Christ’ came to establish and which Jesus himself is now king of, is made up of people from across the world who choose to follow Jesus. They serve him by obeying all he taught.

 

  1. A priest

The Messiah is a priestly figure. Again the nativity story hints at Jesus’ priestly role when he is brought presents of frankincense and myrrh. These precious spices were used by priests in the temple as an offering to God. The presents suggest that Jesus will be a kind of priest, leading people to God.

Priests were incredibly important in Jewish community life. They were the ones who could make sacrifices on behalf of the people, to deal with their sin and make them ‘right’ with God. (See this article on sacrifice for more information.) Christians believe that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for humankind’s sin when he died on the cross. This doctrine is known as the atonement and you can read more on this here.

 

  1. One who brings justice, peace and freedom

When Jesus started his ministry, he went to the synagogue, opened up a scroll and read words from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)

And then Jesus concludes by saying, ‘Today, these Scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing.’ Now remember – Isaiah is one of the prophets who prophesied at great length about the coming Messiah who would bring an age of peace, prosperity and healing. This passage is a Messianic prophecy. That Jesus reads this, and points to himself at the end, shows he makes a connection between himself and the Messiah figure. The gospels go on to show how Jesus brought life to people whom he touched. He physically healed people. He told people about God’s love and forgiveness, available for all. (Many Christian thinkers point to the examples of Jesus healing Gentiles – or non-Jews – as evidence for this.) And Christians believe that this love and healing is still available to all, through God’s Holy Spirit.

But there is another way Christians think about this promise. Clearly the Jewish prophets had a very specific idea of what peace and justice looked like. They longed for freedom from earthly enemies, such as the Babylonians, and a return to their homeland. But St Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, takes these themes of peace and freedom further. He explains that there is a bigger problem for humankind. It’s not an earthly one, but a spiritual one: the on-going struggle with sin. The enemy we need saving from isn’t outside, but inside. We put ourselves and our desires first, and this causes all kinds of hurt towards God, other people and the created world around us. The rest stems from this.

But, Paul says, when Jesus died, he defeated sin (see the atonement). Now that sin is no longer a powerful problem, we have been set free to live God’s way, as God’s friends. And with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, who because of Jesus’ death lives with us and in us, we can join with God in bringing peace and justice (as Jesus did) to the wider world.

 

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Prejudice and the Bible

Is the Bible racist?

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Jesus was a victim of both religious and racial discrimination. Israel was under occupation by the Roman Empire, causing tension and animosity on both sides. There was hatred between the Jews and their neighbours of mixed race, the Samaritans (i.e. people from a region called […]

Good Friday

What do Christians remember on Good Friday?

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Good Friday

What do Christians remember on Good Friday?

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Good Friday is the Friday of Holy Week, the Friday before Easter Day. It is thought that the name Good Friday is an altered form of God’s Friday. But many people say that ‘Good’ Friday is an appropriate name: on this special day, God showed […]

Easter Sunday

What is the Resurrection?

  • Festivals
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Prayer

Easter Sunday

What is the Resurrection?

  • Festivals
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It is on Easter Sunday that the fasting and sadness of Lent turns to joyful celebration as Christians celebrate the Resurrection and declare that death is defeated and Jesus is alive. Jesus had told the disciples before he was arrested that he would be crucified […]

Good Friday

How do Christians remember Jesus' death on Good Friday?

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Good Friday Walk of Witnesses

Good Friday

How do Christians remember Jesus' death on Good Friday?

  • Festivals
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Good Friday is both a time of sadness and a time of thankfulness. Sadness as Christians remember the suffering that Jesus endured but thankfulness as they think about how he suffered and died as a sign of God’s love for all people. Some Christians will […]

Pentecost

What do Christians celebrate at Pentecost?

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Pentecost

What do Christians celebrate at Pentecost?

  • Festivals
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Before Jesus returned back to heaven he set out for the disciples the work he now expected them to do: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name […]

Sayings of Jesus

How much of what Jesus said do you know?

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Sayings of Jesus

How much of what Jesus said do you know?

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What did Jesus say while He was here on earth? Test your knowledge of what Jesus said about a range of different subjects…

Resurrection evidence

What happened to Jesus' body?

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Resurrection evidence

What happened to Jesus' body?

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After Jesus was crucified, his body was placed in a cave and a large rock was rolled in front of the entrance. Roman guards were ordered to stand and keep watch over it to ensure that the body wasn’t stolen. However, after three days, Christians […]

Parables: The Unforgiving Servant

What did Jesus teach about the importance of forgiving?

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Parables: The Unforgiving Servant

What did Jesus teach about the importance of forgiving?

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Jesus taught people using stories called ‘Parables’. The Unforgiving Servant is a parable about forgiveness. Watch the film here and think for yourself: Are there things that you would forgive and things that you wouldn’t forgive? Should we forgive other people? When you do things […]

Advent

How do Christians prepare for Christmas?

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Advent Ring

Advent

How do Christians prepare for Christmas?

  • Festivals
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The Christmas season begins four Sundays before Christmas Day with Advent. Advent means ‘coming’. Christians prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth as a baby in the weeks that lead up to Christmas. They also remember that he will return as king and judge. Many Advent customs […]

Jesus is baptised

What happened at Jesus' baptism?

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Jesus is baptised

What happened at Jesus' baptism?

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Baptism was already popular in the time of Jesus. It demonstrated a person’s commitment to living God’s way rather than their own. Jesus had a cousin called John who baptised people. He was known as John the Baptist. John was a preacher. He told people […]

Jesus’ Teaching: Prayer

What did Jesus teach about prayer?

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Jesus’ Teaching: Prayer

What did Jesus teach about prayer?

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Prayer is important for Christians, as they believe it is one of the main ways through which our relationship with God can grow deeper. Just as we grow closer to our friends when we spend time with them, so Christians believe that in spending time […]

Jesus’ Teaching: Faith

What did Jesus teach about having faith?

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JESUS-TEACHING-FAITH

Jesus’ Teaching: Faith

What did Jesus teach about having faith?

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The dictionary states that the definition of faith is complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Jesus had absolute faith in God the Father and encourages people to have the same faith. One day Jesus’ disciples asked him to increase their faith but he […]

Meet a Christian…

What unites Christians?

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Archbishop of York

Meet a Christian…

What unites Christians?

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Christians come in all different shapes and sizes, but they do have one thing in common – they believe in Jesus Christ as somebody special who has changed their life. Hear some stories here.

LIFE-WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN

What is a Christian?

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Perhaps the clue to what a Christian is can be found in the name. The word ‘Christian’ is actually a nickname – it literally means ‘little Christ’. It was a nickname given to men and women in the first century who went about talking about […]

Timeline of Jesus’ Life

What do the Gospels tell us?

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Timeline of Jesus’ Life

What do the Gospels tell us?

  • Jesus
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What do we know about Jesus? How do we know about his life and work? What are the key features of Jesus’ life?

Jesus and the Christian faith

Why do Christians worship him?

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JESUS-IMPORTANT-WAYTRUTHLIFE

Jesus and the Christian faith

Why do Christians worship him?

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Jesus spent 3 years meeting and teaching people. When he died he left a devoted group of a few hundred followers. Today, 2 billion people worldwide call themselves Christians. What makes Jesus so central to Christians’ lives today? For many, he is seen in the […]

Jesus today

Why do people choose to follow Jesus in the 21st century?

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Jesus today

Why do people choose to follow Jesus in the 21st century?

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It’s easy to think of Jesus as somebody who lives in history books. But Jesus is really important to Christians– not just as somebody who said and did amazing things 2000 years ago but as somebody who is a friend to them today. Most Christians […]

Celebrating Easter

Why is the Resurrection so important to Christians today?

  • Festivals
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Celebrating Easter

Why is the Resurrection so important to Christians today?

  • Festivals
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If the first question about the Resurrection – Jesus’ return from death – is ‘Did it happen?’, the second is ‘Does it really matter?’ Take a look at these films to find out how Christians have responded to that question.

The Resurrection

What do Christians believe happened on Easter Sunday?

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The Resurrection

What do Christians believe happened on Easter Sunday?

  • Festivals
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What happened on Good Friday is important to Christians. But Jesus’ death on Good Friday isn’t the end of the story. Christians believe that Jesus did not stay dead, but came back to life three days later on Easter Sunday. This is known as the […]

Sin – what is it?

What do Christians mean by the word 'sin'?

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Sin – what is it?

What do Christians mean by the word 'sin'?

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Christians often talk about Jesus’ death as a way of bringing forgiveness for sin. But what is sin? Play the game and then read the explanation below. To play the game: The aim of the game is to fire a cannon ball from one side […]

Jesus’ death

What do Christians believe about why Jesus died?

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Jesus’ death

What do Christians believe about why Jesus died?

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Jesus died by being crucified. ‘Crucifixion’ means nailed to a cross. The cross was then lifted up outside the city walls (in Jesus’ case, Jerusalem) so everybody could see it. The people on the cross were then left to die in the hot sun. It […]

The Easter Story: Doubtless

Is the idea that Jesus came back to life too much to believe?

  • Festivals
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The Easter Story: Doubtless

Is the idea that Jesus came back to life too much to believe?

  • Festivals
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Would you believe that a dead person could come back to life? It would be understandable to doubt it. One of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, has gone down in history as the one who doubted the reports of Jesus’ resurrection. This film is based on that […]

The Easter Story: Talk of the morning

What happened on the first Easter Sunday?

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The Easter Story: Talk of the morning

What happened on the first Easter Sunday?

  • Festivals
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The gospels say that Jesus didn’t stay dead. Lots of witnesses saw Jesus die on a cross on Friday – but by the Sunday there were rumours that the tomb was empty and that he had appeared to some of his followers – Mary Magdalene […]

The Easter Story: The Centurion’s story

What happened when Jesus was on the cross?

  • Festivals
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Salvation

The Easter Story: The Centurion’s story

What happened when Jesus was on the cross?

  • Festivals
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The Bible says that Jesus died by being crucified by the Romans – that is, being nailed to a cross and left to die. The gospels quote a Roman soldier who watched Jesus die as saying ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’ This […]

The Easter Story: Undeniable

What happened to Jesus' disciples after he was arrested?

  • Festivals
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The Easter Story: Undeniable

What happened to Jesus' disciples after he was arrested?

  • Festivals
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On the night before Jesus died – the night of his arrest – Jesus’ disciples ran away, scared for their lives. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends, but even he let Jesus down. During the Last Supper, which happened only hours before his arrest, […]

Jesus’ miracles: Turning water into wine

How did Jesus liven up a wedding party?

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Jesus’ miracles: Turning water into wine

How did Jesus liven up a wedding party?

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According to the Gospel of John, this was the very first miracle – or ‘sign’ as John calls them – which Jesus did. Jesus, his mother and his disciples were all guests at a wedding in Cana, in Galilee. At the reception, the wine runs […]

Jesus’ miracles: Power over nature

What did Jesus do in the middle of a raging storm?

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Jesus’ miracles: Power over nature

What did Jesus do in the middle of a raging storm?

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The Gospel writers were keen to show that Jesus had power over nature. One time Jesus and the disciples were in a boat on the Lake of Galilee late one night. A storm began. It was so strong that the boat they were in was […]

Jesus’ miracles: Raising the dead

What did Jesus do in the face of death?

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Jesus’ miracles: Raising the dead

What did Jesus do in the face of death?

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The gospels include stories of Jesus bringing people back to life.  Two of these are the raising of Jairus’ daughter and of his friend Lazarus. The story of Jairus’ daughter begins when Jesus is met by a large crowd on the side of Lake Galilee. […]

Jesus’ miracles: Healings

What happened when Jesus met people who were unwell?

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Jesus’ miracles: Healings

What happened when Jesus met people who were unwell?

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The stories about Jesus tell us that he healed many different people with all kinds of problems. The blind, the deaf, those who could not speak and those with diseases all found healing by Jesus’ touch or his command. But Jesus is also seen to […]

Jesus’ miracles: the feeding of the 5,000

How did Jesus treat people who were hungry?

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Jesus’ miracles: the feeding of the 5,000

How did Jesus treat people who were hungry?

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Miracles are often seen as signs by the Gospel writers to explain what sort of God Christians believe in and how Jesus his Son shows that. This story shows that Jesus can supply the basic needs we have – in John’s version of the story, […]

Jesus’ miracles: Jairus’ daughter

Jesus brings a girl back to life

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Jesus’ miracles: Jairus’ daughter

Jesus brings a girl back to life

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There are several stories in the gospels of Jesus bringing people back to life. In one story, Jesus heals a 12-year-old girl who has died. You can read about it Mark 5: 21-43 or watch a version of the story here.

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What is a miracle?

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When Christians talk about a miracle, they mean an event that is not ‘normal’ – that is, one that should not be able to happen according to the laws of nature. The Gospels describe 35 miracles that Jesus performed. Over half of these 35 stories […]

The Unforgiving Servant

What does it mean?

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Benny the Boss Unforgiving

The Unforgiving Servant

What does it mean?

  • Jesus
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The parables were stories Jesus used which enabled him to explain his teachings in a way he knew that the people would remember. They were also a means in which he could teach tough principles that were central to the Christian faith. One of these […]

The Lost Son

What does it mean?

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The Lost Son

What does it mean?

  • Jesus
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‘The Lost Son’ is the third of a group of Jesus’ parables about the idea of losing and finding. In the first one, a shepherd has a hundred sheep and then goes looking for one who wanders off. In the second one, a woman who […]

Prodigal Lost Son

Parables: The Lost Son

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‘The Lost (or Prodigal) Son’ is a very famous parable. It is the last of three parables Jesus tells about ‘lost’ things – first a sheep, then a coin, then finally a child. In the parable, the father represents God. The son represents the people […]

The Good Samaritan

What does it mean?

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The Good Samaritan

What does it mean?

  • Jesus
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We all have people that we find difficult to love, those we would rather not know or cannot ever say anything good about. Jesus is asked a question “Who is my neighbour?” – that is, whom am I responsible for? He does not give a […]

Parables: The Good Samaritian

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One of the most famous parables of Jesus is known as ‘The Good Samaritan’. Samaritans were a group of people living next door to the Jews. (The Jews were the first people to hear Jesus’ story.) The Jews and the Samaritans were enemies and avoided […]

Jesus’ parables

What is a parable?

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Jesus’ parables

What is a parable?

  • Jesus
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A parable is an imaginary story used to teach people a moral lesson (for example, how to treat people in need) or a spiritual lesson (for example, what God is like). In some ways, stories help people to understand things better. But Jesus also said […]

Jesus’ teaching: Money

What did Jesus teach about money and giving?

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Jesus’ teaching: Money

What did Jesus teach about money and giving?

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Money. It can do wonderful things and change lives for the better. Equally, it can be a cause of stress, arguments and leave our lives in a mess. Having too much can make you greedy for more, having too little can make you desperate. The […]

Jesus’ life and ministry

What do Christians believe about Jesus' life and ministry?

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Jesus’ life and ministry

What do Christians believe about Jesus' life and ministry?

  • Jesus
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Jesus’ family Perhaps one of the most famous stories about Jesus is his birth: God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was […]

Questions about Jesus

What do we know about Jesus?

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QUESTION

Questions about Jesus

What do we know about Jesus?

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Did Jesus really exist? Yes. The New Testament part of the Bible tells us about who Jesus was, what he did, and why. But other writings by people who weren’t Christians also talk about a man named Jesus. Roman and Jewish historians such as Josephus […]

Christian Festivals

What are the big events that happen during the year?

  • Festivals
  • Timeline
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Christian Festivals

What are the big events that happen during the year?

  • Festivals
  • Timeline

Our calendar year is divided into four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each season has its special characteristics, colours and associations. For example Autumn is often associated with harvest, and the orange and yellow leaves that blow around in the blustery wind. It […]